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Last October, Google announced a dedicated camera product that appears at first glance to be yet another action camera. Google Clips, however, doesn't feature a ruggedized design, isn't waterproof, and has a somewhat simplified look to it.
Instead, Google Clips is a $250 smart camera. At least that's what Google calls it. The smarts come in the form of artificial intelligence and facial recognition. Only, instead of relying on a data connection for any AI or facial recognition features, all processing is done entirely on the camera itself. After learning who you care about, such as a relative or the family dog (cats, too!), Clips automatically captures moments whenever it's turned on.
Furthermore, Google Clips only syncs media to your mobile phone when asked, not automatically in the background. You have to manually select which photos or clips get saved to your phone, and ultimately synced to the cloud.
Starting Tuesday, Google Clips is available directly from Google, as well as Best Buy, B&H and Verizon.
For the past ten days I've used Google Clips to capture random moments of me working, let my kids experiment with it, and even caught some pretty incredible clips of my oldest playing basketball.
When designing Clips, Google wanted to ensure the final product looked like a camera. Perhaps learning lessons from Google Glass, where bystanders were unsure if the camera was in use, Google wanted to make it entirely clear.
A single lens, protruding from the square body, with three indicator lights and a shutter button make up the front of Clips. On the bottom is a USB-C port for charging the camera.
It's small footprint, measuring 49 x 49 x 20-millimeters, is easy to drop into a pocket, bag, or purse. The lens is covered with Gorilla Glass, helping protect it from scratches and drops.
The housing isn't waterproof but can withstand a splash or two. I wish it was waterproof, though, as during the summer we spend a lot of time around water and the peace of mind in knowing that if someone were to knock it into the water - or better yet letting Clips capture underwater - would be a nice addition.
Inside the box is a silicone holster, with a clip on the back that makes it easy to attach the camera to the edge of a table or stand it up on a flat surface.
White indicator lights are used to let those around the camera know when it's capturing photos. The lights also tell you when the camera needs recharged, or when you've manually triggered a picture by pressing the shutter button.
Turning on the camera is done by turning the lens a quarter turn clockwise. After a short startup, the camera will begin capturing photos.
The camera itself is 12-megapixels, with a 130-degree field of view, 1080p video capabilities and 16GB of storage. The internal battery provides up to three hours of constant use.
The setup process for Google Clips varies slightly based on your mobile platform of choice. For iOS users, the Google Clips app will search for a nearby camera, connect to it, and then proceed to update the camera's firmware. The process takes just a few minutes, after which the camera is ready for use.
Android users follow the same necessary steps, only with the additional step of allowing Clips to connect to your Google Photos account and learn the faces you've taught Google Photos to recognize.
By allowing Google Photos and Clips to work together, you don't have to go through the process of "teaching" Clips which faces are important to you. However, if you'd prefer not to let Clips talk to Google Photos, you can point the camera at a loved one or your pet's face and press the shutter button.
Manually taking a photo is a passive way to tell Clips you care about the person or people in the shot, and it will use that information in the future to capture photos.
The Google Clips app
Google developed an app for iOS and Android users who want to use Google Clips. However, the two apps don't have the same features.
For example, the iOS app cannot find and automatically turn on Clips to begin transferring and viewing images. iPhone users have to press the shutter button or rotate the lens before the app connects to the camera and display clips.
Google Photos integration with the Android app will eventually make its way to the iOS app, according to Google.
Editing tools for Android users include the ability to crop the animated photos and images, whereas iOS users can't.
In either version of the app, there are two main feeds of clips. One is every clip the camera has captured, with the other feed containing suggested clips the camera thinks you will like, along with any clips captured using the shutter button.
A swipe to the right on a clip will save it. A swipe to the left deletes it. There's also a button to save all clips, only save moments, or to remove everything.
Indicators along the top of the app show current battery percentage, as well as how much storage is taken up. In all of my testing, I was never able to get past taking up 10-percent of the camera's storage. A live view is also available in the app, letting you preview and frame your shot remotely.
Currently, Google Clips only officially works with the Samsung Galaxy S7, Galaxy S8, Pixel phones, and an iPhone running iOS 11 or newer.
Set it and forget it
The main idea behind Google Clips is the ability to position the camera nearby and let it take care of when to capture a moment. Using its processor to identify familiar faces, or when someone is smiling, it should catch moments you want to keep.
Each photo Clips captures is actually a short video between six and seven-seconds long at 15 frames-per-second (fps). Without a microphone, Clips won't record any audio. Taking one of those short clips, you can then select an individual frame to save as a photo, or create an animated image or GIF. With the low frame-rate, videos captured aren't as smooth as you're accustomed to from a smartphone, which can range from 30 to 60 fps.
I used Clips in several scenarios and situations. From placing it on the dinner table to propping it on a shelf overlooking my daughter's 10th birthday party, resting it on bleacher underneath a basketball hoop at a basketball game, to sitting poolside during (yet another) birthday party.
In each situation, it's hard to learn to let go and trust the camera to capture the photos you want. The first few times I used it, I found myself continually going into the Clips app and looking at what had been captured, then trying to adjust positioning or using the shutter button to force a photo.
It wasn't until after a basketball game when I was reviewing the various moments it had captured, I realized I needed to let go and trust Clips. I now have GIFs of my daughter playing defense and going up for rebounds, all the while I sat and watched the game without reaching for my phone to take photos (or check Clips).
But the most impressive part of all that is that I didn't have a camera roll full of clips when she wasn't in the game. Clips only captured moments when her face was visible, and those are all I truly care about.
A set it and forget it approach is something I've always attempted to recreate with cameras. From using a GoPro in time-lapse mode to wearing Google Glass, or recording a video of an entire school play, convincing myself I'd eventually go back and edit out just my kids' parts, I've desperately wanted to get out from behind a screen and just enjoy the moment.
Heck, I've even recently stopped taking photos and videos altogether for just that reason.
Where I found Google Clips to fall a bit short is overall photo quality. The 12-megapixel camera takes decent shots when there's little or no motion, or when the lighting is just right. For shots with a lot of movement, the overall quality is a tad disappointing.
What helps save Clips from this shortfall is that you can handpick the exact frame you want to keep as a still photo.
Google's advertised battery life of three hours is a fair estimate if you leave the camera running and don't worry about viewing clips during that time.
Sync with an Android device is seamless and incredibly quick. Sync with an iPhone is still smooth, but not nearly as fast.
One proud Dad
After learning to trust Google Clips to capture photos, I began to feel relieved every time I would turn the camera on. Not only could I be present in the moment, but I was still capturing moments I often had before.
There are some who will say a phone is just as easy to use, and doesn't cost $250, and I completely understand. Google Clips definitely isn't for everyone.
I see the value in what Google is doing with Google Clips, and I'm firmly on board with it. I do wish the frame rate was higher, and that the picture quality was more consistent, but all-in-all, I'm happy with Google Clips.